Jeff Suppan is not a very popular player right now among Brewers’ fans. After a below average 10-10 campaign last season capped off with an 0-3 September, Suppan has shown nothing encouraging whatsoever in his first two starts of 2009, losing both of them. Here’s Suppan’s total line to open the season.
2 GS, 7.2 IP, 8 H, 11 R, 11 ER, 2 HR 7 BB, 3 HBP, 2 SO
Honestly, it’s hard to find the most alarming thing about this line. 3 HBPs? 10 total walks in less than nine innings? Two HRs already? Only two strikeouts? This comes out to a 10.03 FIP, so it’s not even a point of Suppan being unlucky.
He’s just pitching terribly, worse than he did at any time last year. What’s driving this problem, and is it the same thing that drove his decline in 2008?
First, let’s look at 2007, a productive season for Jeff Suppan. In his first year with Milwaukee, Suppan was a relatively unimpressive 12-12 with a 4.62 ERA over 206.2 innings pitched.
However, Suppan’s 114 Ks, 68 BBs, and 18 HR allowed (a product of an unsustainable 7.3 percent HR/FB rate) translated to a 4.42 FIP, which is very close to league average. In 2008, Suppan took a bit of a dive, going 10-10 with a 4.96 ERA.
Fortunately for the Brewers, his ERA was much higher than his FIP which skyrocketed to 5.51 due to significantly worse rates in all three statistics tracked by FIP.
Thanks to the great Pitch F/X technology installed in MLB parks, we can get a really good look at what Suppan’s stuff is doing. I’ve pulled data from four games from the gameday archives.
Game One:September 20, 2007 vs. Atlanta
Game Two: August 17, 2008 vs. Los Angeles Dodgers
Game Three: September 14, 2008 vs. Philadelphia
Game Four: April 12, 2009 vs. Chicago Cubs
The first two were from periods in which Suppan was pitching well. The second two are from the current period in which Suppan can’t get anybody out. Let’s see if there’s anything distinguishable in the pitch_fx data.
First, this graph shows the movement on Suppan’s pitches. The movement is relative to a ball that is thrown at the same velocity but without spin.
This sounds like a knuckleball, but think of it more as a ball that is pushed or shot out of a cannon as opposed to gripped like a four-seam fastball or a curveball (because of the natural spin put on a four-seam fastball, it effectively rises but we don’t see it as rising because of the effects of gravity).
The point here, though, isn’t to see the kind of movement that Suppan has on his pitches but to see if there are any noticeable differences between these four starts.
Looking at this graph, we see there are a few outliers in the September ‘08 start, but the movements are mostly clustering around the same general area. It appears that perhaps in September ‘07 that there was slightly less horizontal break on the fastball (the top left corner) and more vertical break, but outside of that, it’s hard to say anything definitive.
If something was truly off (especially with this April’s start), we’d expect to see possibly less horizontal break (indicating a straight fastball). No, it doesn’t appear that there’s been much of a drop-off (if any) in Suppan’s movement.
However, Suppan has seen a one MPH drop off in fastball velocity since 2007 according to fangraphs, dropping off from 87.9 avg in 2007 (and most of his career) to 86.9 in 2008, which has carried through to this year.
Although this drop off likely has hurt Suppan, he has never had an impressive fastball, and I can’t see it being the fuel behind his implosion to start the 2009 season.
No, the truth is most likely contained in this next graph, which is a plot of Suppan’s pitch locations.
Here we see Suppan threw a good deal of strikes in September of 2007, and that most of his misses were in an area near enough to the strike zone that they could’ve been strikes. He pounded the zone even more in August, which was a theme for Suppan.
However, you’ll see that many of the yellow pitches from August ‘08 weren’t painting the corners—they were decent pitches to hit. Somehow, despite this, Suppan managed to compile a 3.00 ERA based on a completely unsustainable .214 batting average on balls in play (batting average on all plays not resulting in a K or a HR).
Over 131 balls in play, we’d expect 39 hits whereas Suppan allowed 28. These 11 hits would’ve raised his BAA to .303, which means we probably could’ve expected a month more like April (5.19 ERA) or at best June (4.33 ERA).
In his September 2008 and April 2009 starts, everything started to hit the fan. Suppan started to combine unimpressive stuff and a lack of command with the inability to hit the zone.
Here are some conclusions that I think we can safely draw from this data.
To have ever expected Jeff Suppan to be anything more than an average pitcher with his stuff would be expecting too much (which is why his career FIP is 4.81).
The only reason Suppan ever compiled a successful season was an ability to command the strike zone. The data compiled from his starts in September 2008 and especially April 2009 suggest that this ability has all but disappeared. Of course, this is a very small sample size to base decisions on, so we have to be careful.
Even if Suppan does regain his control and command, it still may be unreasonable to expect a year as good as 2007 (4.42 FIP, 2.7 WAR) for two reasons:
Suppan benefited from a ridiculously low 7.3 percent HR/FB rate in 2007. His previous low was 10.8 percent.
Suppan’s average fastball velocity has fell from 88 to 87 mph. This doesn’t sound like much, but at the same time, his changeup velocity held at 80 mph last year and has risen to 82 mph this year. If Suppan can’t blow batters away, he needs to both paint corners AND change speeds to be successful.
I’m not saying it’s necessarily time to boot Suppan out of the rotation, but the leash is getting short in a hurry.